It's easy for any of us to get dragged into it. Say I hear someone talking about how they're finding their first year of college to be really rough.
I can jump in with my own tragic tale and say, "Rough? I know all about that. Try starting college at barely 17, all alone in a country which seems foreign, not having a driver's license, and freezing to death on top of it all because your tropical blood was not prepared for one of the snowiest Michigan winters they've had in years!"
Say a fellow ESL teacher says, "Sometimes, this job is hard."
Someone with the work history of, say, Angel, could easily the twist the topic to his own advantage, "You think teaching ESL is hard? No one's life depends on this job. At my old job, a normal day included providing medical care for patients with burns covering more than half their bodies. Try doing that for twelve-hour shifts."
And then the firemen....and the soldiers...and the policemen....and the EMTs (and all their spouses!) would all start chiming in about how tough their jobs are and everything would just turn into a mess.
You think your bed is uncomfortable? Some people nap on the floor, okay? Try that!
But too often, when we one-up another's tale of woe with a story of our own, it's just our inherent selfish streak wanting to change the topic to be about us and our own experiences. Because we care more about our stories than we care about someone else's.
Also, a touch of bitterness and lack of compassion for others can easily sneak in in these situations. What right has the other person to complain about such a small trial when I've survived such big ones? I'll give them some realistic perspective because they're living in a bubble world if they think what they're experiencing is a problem. I see this happening a lot with mothers. You have problems with one kid? I have four. Your baby weighed 7 lbs? Mine weighed 10.
And then, there's the good old competitive instinct. I've seen some misery one-uppers who are clearly in it only to win the medal for "most miserable." Why said medal is so desirable, I have no idea, but it's obvious that some are out to get it and won't give up short of reaching their goal.
The truth is, that sometimes people do complain about silly stuff. Often, we humans aren't fully capable of having a wider perspective on the suffering that the whole world has experienced when they are experiencing suffering themselves.
But I do not believe that topping one person's story of tough times with your own story is the way to give them a proper perspective. Have you ever tried to tell someone who just seriously stubbed their toe and is limping in pain about the statistics on how many people undergo medically necessary amputations each and every day so they should just appreciate having a toe? I haven't, but I have to imagine that it's not the best timing you could choose. It is not our universal responsibility to 'pop' all bubble worlds that we come across in our daily lives.
Next time you hear a complaint you could easily top (i.e. "I wish we had a bigger yard for the kids to play in!"...."Oh yeah? My family lives in a tiny apartment and THERE IS NO YARD.") ....don't top it. Instead, try listening, and when appropriate, showing compassion to someone who's hurting.
The fact that we've experienced pain does not mitigate the pain that others experience. Responding to, "I'm bummed out because I got in a big fight with my dad." with "Well, I wish my dad was still alive for me to get into a fight with!" isn't particularly helpful. Let's put up our white flags and resign ourselves to the truth that this is one war nobody will win, so we might as well stop digging around in our past for tragedies to top other people's tragedies with. I'd rather win at the competition for most joyful, anyways. Doesn't that sound like it's at least a little more fun?
"I'll see you your deceased goldfish and raise you my kitten who got run over."